review: Aurora Theatre Company opens its 21st season with the Bay Area Premiere of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” inviting the Berkeley audience to get primal over wrestling
Professional wrestling, of course, is a sham—scripted right down to the last pulsating peck. Still, there’s something primordial and bizarrely addictive about watching muscle-bound superheroes in spandex groan, grunt and holler as they pummel each other with drop kicks, flying body presses, and other daredevil maneuvers. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, by Obie Award winner Kristoffer Diaz, had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company last week. The play is a fun, clever and engrossing satire bringing us right into the colorful the world of professional wrestling and its stock-in-trade characters. Friday night’s performance was electric, offering the audience, a few of whom came dressed in costume, a chance to amp up and cut loose as they entered an epic battle of good versus evil in the ring. And what a ring it was! Set designer Nina Ball outdid herself transforming Aurora’s intimate three-quarter round house into a convincing professional wrestling ring surrounded by colorful lights and elevated platforms where the wrestlers posed. A pre-show warm-up round with wrestler Billy Heartland (Dave Maier) gave the audience a tutorial on how to re-act to each of the characters— with cheering, heckling or chanting. Heartland even pulled a woman from the audience up into the ring to assist him. She did so well that I wondered if she was a plant. Two mammoth video screens provided riveting close-ups of the wrestling, sexy go-go girls (the only females in this play) and projected introductory videos of each character—a very skillful collaboration of light, sound and video from Aurora’s talented team. It was just like being in Vegas and taking in the real deal—skin and a lot of adrenaline flowing.
The story’s narrator is Macedonio Guerra aka “the Mace” (Tony Sancho), a young Puerto Rican professional wrestler who is the fall-guy for the star, “Chad Deity.” Sancho gives an impassioned and edgy performance as a man who’s smarting from a career that didn’t pan out as anticipated who is struggling to find meaning in his life and to see his own value. Sancho’s Macedonio speaks like a cultural anthropologist, explaining not only what’s going on in his head but the whole culture of wrestling invoking a series of fascinating connections and intersections. As he describes how he was drawn to wresting in his childhood and walks us through his moves that enable the hero, we begin to understand that wrestling requires stamina, physical skill and the ability to let oneself be used and demeaned, as a pawn in a ratings game. The burning question: how could someone this astute settle for being someone’s fall guy?
The reigning All-American hero, Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden) is served up as beefcake— a flashy black man sporting gold hair and tight spandex who preens, struts, grunts, and wins. He’s reached the pinnacle of success in wresting. He sports a prodigiously large belt buckle, gets the big salary and he spends lavishly but he doesn’t really do the work. That is left to little noticed and less appreciated Macedonio, who jumps to make it look like the burly Chad is lifting him in the air. Chad is Olson’s satirical nod to the successful, or not, assimilation of blacks in our society. Oddly, the most memorable line Chad Deity delivers comes during his riff on the money he has and what it’s bought—giant refrigerators with multiple crispers that he doesn’t even use. His young son has refrigerator in his playroom and he uses that crisper to keep his action heroes cold. There’s a lot about Chad Deity that we just don’t know and will never know. And the playwright doesn’t provide us with a lot of backstory or insight to humanize these characters beyond the silly roles they play.
Their promoter and employer, the greasy Everett K. “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp), founder of the circuit called THE Wrestling, milks the cash-cow for all its worth and is constantly seeking to stir the pot, raise the stakes and hook the crowd.
The fight physicality is impressive and authentic. The wrestlers’ moves—attacks and throws—are all choreographed by Dave Maier and went off without a hitch, creating the impression that pain was inflicted with each resounding thud, kick or twist of the limb. (A video below includes segments of the actors talking about their intense preparation for this demanding production.)
When Macedonio recruits Vigneshwar Paduar (Nasser Khan), the wrestling script changes. VK is a young man of Indian descent from Brooklyn, who has dark skin, and could easily pass as having any number of racial backgrounds. EKO first trots him out as a Latino and then embellishes him with a long beard, a white robe and recasts him as “The Fundamentalist,” a villain Muslim, who along with his sidekick, Mace, is out to destroy the American hero Chad Deity. Khan’s character was the least well-developed in the show, even though the actor made the most of the lines he was given and got some good laughs with his polyglot high-jinks. Is he a visionary or just a cynical kid who wants to make some quick money? I couldn’t tell.
The ah-hah moment comes as Mace gets fed up with EKO and hooks up with VK in a rebellion that ultimately fizzles. At the abrupt end of play, we are left high from the cheering and jeering that we’ve engaged in for 2 hours and with great compassion for Macedonio in particular. His intellect and insight seemed key to his escaping his demeaning role. I had the unsettling feeling of not being altogether clear about what it was all supposed to mean.
As part of the theatre audience who is also the wrestling audience, we are essentially watching ourselves watching the spectacle and co-creating the spectacle and that’s fascinating. From that vantage point, there’s no escaping the powerful scripted stereotypes that limit and entrap those in wrestling, and all realms of our society, that we perpetuate.
Production team: written by Kristoffer Diaz; directed by Jon Tracy; set design Nina Ball; costumes Magie Whitaker, sound design by Cliff Caruthers, lighting design by Kurt Landisman, video design by Jim Gross
Cast: Rod Gnapp as promoter EKO (or E.K. Olson), Tony Sancho as wrestler “The Mace” or Macedonio Guerra, Beethovan Oden as wrestler Chad Diety, Dave Maier as wrestler Billy Heartland, and Nasser Khan as wrestler VP or Vigneshwar Paduar
Behind the Scenes of THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY at Aurora Theatre Company
Details: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity runs through September 30, 2012. Performances: Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. The Aurora Theatre is located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.
TICKETS: Tickets are $32-50, with half-off tickets for Under 30, student, and group discounts; phone (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM, or, all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.
Performances with talks/groups:
Friday Forum: Friday, September 14, 2012 – Political Correctness for Life
Script Club: Monday,September 24, 2012 7:30pm – The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner
Wicked Wisdom: Friday, September 28, 2012 – Seeing the Truth in the Ring
review: “Honey-Brown Eyes” a drama in two Bosnian kitchens explores the human side of war, at SF Playouse through November 5, 2011
In 2009, Stefanie Zadravec won the Helen Hayes Award for Honey Brown Eyes, a quietly terrifying drama set in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990’s. This remarkable play opened SF Playhouse’s fall season last Saturday and is a perfect fit for this jewel of a company that keeps delivering one riveting drama after another. Honey Brown Eyes how humans behave in war and the reverberating mess war leaves in its wake. The Bosnian War certainly left us in West with terrifying vision of a troubled land where brutality beats out justice. That war, which resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia, involved Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, all fighting over land and attempting to settle ancient scores. It entailed intimidation, forced expulsion and/or killing of the Bosniak population by Serb forces, and the mass rape of an estimated 50,000 women. All the drama in Honey Brown Eyes takes place against this backdrop but occurs entirely in two small kitchens representing opposite sides of the war —one in Višegrad owned by Alma (Jennifer Stuckert), a Muslim Croat and the other in Sarajevo, owned by Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) a Serb. The stories are connected because, before the war, Alma’s brother, Denis (Chad Deverman), and Zovanka’s grandson, Dragan (Nic Grelli), were bandmates in a popular punk rock band that imploded because its egoistic guitar players couldn’t get along. Director Bill English’s clever staging has both kitchen dramas occurring on essentially the same Balkan kitchen set strengthening the plot connection. Director Susi Damilano keeps the action fast-paced and emotionally-charged, presenting characters who manage to rise above their ethnicities to find courage and hope in the chaos of war. Is it realistic? Zadrevec would like us to think so because only in examining our very basic assumptions about human nature and behavior does the possibility for change exist.
In Act I, Dragan, a heavily-armed young Serb soldier, shows up at Alma’s apartment in Višegrad to intimidate and evacuate her. He’s got a complete list of residents and is also looking for her young daughter. Jennifer Stuckert delivers a masterful Alma, physically and emotionally exhausted, but compassionate with a strong inner core. She relates to Dragan with kindness, offering coffee and denying repeatedly that she has a daughter. Other than to propel the drama, it is never made clear why Alma has remained in her apartment, almost courting rape and death, and not fled. Grelli’s edgy and amped-up performance as childish, adolescent, and adult Dragan, all rolled into one, perfectly exemplify the faces of this war. As he butts Alma with his rifle and sends her to the floor writhing in pain, he proceeds to threaten her with torture, rape and death—and then is distracted by a small battery-operated television playing an American sit-com that he gloms onto like a six-year-old. Through nervous conversation, they discover that Denis used to be a rocker in the same band as Alma’s brother and that war-weathered Alma is actually “honey brown eyes,” the hottie who, several years ago, inspired a song by that name and was the source of Dragan’s obsessive teen love. That revelation changes their dynamic, adding new pressures to Dragan’s in-humane assignment and giving Alma what appears to be some leverage.
In Act II, Denis, a bedraggled Croat resistance fighter—and Alma’s estranged brother—shows up at elderly Zovanka’s apartment in downtown Sarajevo seeking a place to hide from the Serbs who are out hunting for him. Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) proves to be one amazingly vital, wise and funny woman, offering a strong and compassionate counterpoint to the brut Serbs of Act I. Once she determines she that Denis isn’t going to kill her, she whips up soup from her only onion and offers him some fresh clothing. Over a bottle of wine, they booth loosen up and he confides that he deserted his troops because he couldn’t stomach killing. A hauntingly real intimacy develops between these two supposed enemies and they somehow make a silent pact that speaks volumes about the humanity of individuals in the largeness of war.
Zadravec, who is of Slovenian descent, doesn’t concern herself too much with the specifics of the Bosnian ethnic conflict. She instead opts to explore much larger questions the nature of relationships, love and compassion, loyalty and what unequal power does to them. Impressively, Honey Brown Eyes probes several grey areas of human behaviour without ever diminishing the harrowing experiences of war on all involved. What stands out is the characters’ internal battles to maintain their dignity, humanity and sanity against impossible odds. Presented and acted with compassion and honesty, the powerful play will leave its mark.
Honey Brown Eyes: Cast in order of appearance: Jennifer Stuckert is Alma, Nic Grelli is Dragan, Cooper Carson is Branko/Milenko, Madeleine Pauker is Zlata (rotating), Chad Deverman is Denis, Wanda McCaddon is Zovanka, Daniel Mitchell is the radio announcer.
Susi Damliano is the producing director; Bill English is the set designer/artistic director; Kurt Landisman is the lighting manager; Brenden Aanes is the sound designer; Miyuki Bierlein is the costume designer
Details: SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell and Mason Streets). Performances are Tues/Wed/Thurs. 7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m.
Information and tickets ($20 to $50): www.sfplayhouse.org or phone SF Playhouse box office 415.677.9596.
Keen for more Balkan drama?
The 34th Mill Valley Film Festival opens this Thursday, October 6, 2011, and is presenting two films with high Balkan intensity:
The Forgiveness of Blood: A powerful drama from the producer of Maria Full of Grace (2004)shot entirely on location in Albania that explores that small Balkan country’s insular clan culture through the story of a teenage boy and his sister. When a land-rights argument between two rural Albanian families escalates to a fatality, legal justice takes a backseat to the 15th century Balkan oral code of the Kanun, or traditional Albanian law. Its arcane customs leave Nic (Tristan Halilaj), a 17-year-old Albanian high-schooler who leads a modern life of texting, video games and flirting, a stir-crazy prisoner in his family’s home and vulnerable to revenge by the wronged clan should he step outside his home. Nic’s resourceful 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), takes over her family’s bread delivery business but is soon knee deep in threats herself. As Nic feels increasing pressure to find a solution to this blood feud, his actions escalate such that his entire family is jeopardized. In Albanian with English subtitles, the film boldly contrasts the resurgence of antiquated traditions with the lives of young people in the country’s first post-totalitarian generation, whose bright future is put at risk by these practices. Directed by Joshua Marston (2011) (109 minutes) Screens: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4 p.m. and Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 12:15 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley. Tickets: $13.50. mvff.org
Coriolanus: Actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s war tragedy “Coriolanus” set in war-torn Bosnia with chilling urban battle scenes. Fiennes will also star as the powerful general Caius Martius, or Coriolanus, a powerful general at odds with the City of Rome, a role that Fiennes played on the London stage. Coriolanus is a rivetting drama about the relationship of authority, power, and the emotions that drive them and should play well reconfigured in the hotbed of the Balkans. Martius meets his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (a very macho Gerard Butler) on the battlefield and returns to Rome as a hero. Reveling in his triumph, he is elected to the governing consul but is soon opposed by the citizenry. His anger at the public’s disfavor leads to his expulsion, and in desperation he turns to his sworn enemy Tullus, with whom he takes revenge on the city. Vanessa Redgrave is Coriolanus’s iron-willed mother and Jessica Chastain is his trophy wife. Directed by Ralph Fiennes (2010). (122 minutes) Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 9 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley and Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA. Tickets: $13.50. www.mvff.org